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The EPA seems further along. In its draft “Nanotechnology White Paper,” issued in December, it proposed interagency negotiations to hammer out standards and pool resources. It acknowledged that at present, some nanoparticles that should be under its review are not, because they are not included in the inventory of chemicals controlled under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The EPA must defend the safety not only of human beings but of the natural environment – plants and ecological systems that may be exposed to a regulated material. There is scant data on the effects of nanomaterials in the environment, but some of it is troubling. One study, for example, showed that alumina nanoparticles, which are already commonly used, inhibit root growth in some plants.

In a report written for the Project on Emerging Technologies, J. Clarence Davies, assistant administrator for policy, planning, and evaluation at the EPA from 1989 to 1991, advocates passing a new law assigning responsibility for nanomaterial regulation to a single interagency regulatory authority. Davies would also require manufacturers to prove their nanotech products safe until enough evidence had been gained to warrant exemptions.

But some executives in the nanotech industry cringe at the prospect of such regulations. Alan Gotcher, head of Altair Nanotechnologies, a manufacturer in Reno, NV, that makes various types of nanoparticles, testified before the U.S. Senate in February and cited the Davies report. “To fall into ‘a one-size-fits-all’ approach to nanotechnology,” he said, “is irresponsible and counterproductive.” Gotcher would prefer a government-funded effort to amass the necessary data and build the necessary models before setting any standards.

It is doubtful, however, that the nanotech community will stop developing new products, or that the public will stop buying them, while awaiting a new regulatory framework that could take years and millions of dollars to finalize. While few agree on how to efficiently determine the toxicity of nanoparticles, or how to regulate them, nearly everyone agrees on the urgency of quickly tackling both questions.

The use of nanoparticles in consumer products like cosmetics and cleaners represents only a tiny sliver of nanotech’s potential, but any unresolved safety concerns could cast a huge shadow. “If I was someone producing these materials, I would be afraid that one health problem, anywhere, would hurt the entire industry,” says Peter Hoet, a toxicologist at the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium.

The large consumer corporations DuPont and Procter and Gamble participated in a study on nanoparticles’ toxicity. But the nanotech community needs to put pressure on manufacturers using the “nano” label for marketing purposes to stand up and take responsibility for their products. That means contributing resources and money to toxicity studies and freely disclosing which nanotechnologies they are relying on.

Philip E. Ross writes on science and technology from New York City.

Home page illustration by Jason Holley.

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Tagged: Biomedicine, Materials

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